Wyld FLASH March 26th 2021
It’s happening again. At first, the voices murmur like a stream over stones, then louder like water in spate. They rush towards him. He drowns in everyone’s thoughts and worries and fears.
‘Stop,’ Sean says, but he can’t even hear his own voice. He roars, ‘Stop.’
But it doesn’t stop. The dam’s burst: nothing can prevent the flood of others’ emotions – unfiltered, sordid, raw. They crash over him, words running into each other, overlapping.
It’s like he’s roused a wasps’ nest – thoughts buzz around him and climb over his face, hair, eyes. They swarm round his head, so he just wants to scream.
He runs down the stairs, out of the flats, the door clattering behind him. He runs into the street, and a car’s brakes cut through the buzz for a second. He hears the driver too – little prick, arsehole, should’ve kept going – though his mouth doesn’t move.
The swarm spills out the door that hasn’t shut right, out the gaps round the badly fitted windows, through the cracks in the plaster.
He runs again, pursued by peoples’ thoughts and fears and all the overwhelming, petty shit they fill their heads with. He turns away from the town, running towards the woods, leaving the noise behind. Something sharp snags in his mind and he slows his pace, trying to locate it but this lets the swarm catch him; he tugs free and runs again, into the woods.
The trees shelter him. He leans against a tree to get his breath back, to let the quiet fill him up. He can stay out here until he feels the quiet settle on him, let the part of him that receives it all shut down, go offline. Then he can go home. He might even be home before his mum. He can make dinner. She’ll be pleased.
But something sticks in him like a splinter. He walks further into the woods, off the path. He shakes his head, trying to loosen the nagging shard but it won’t go, just digs deep under the skin. What is it?
It doesn’t matter, he thinks. Forget it. He tries to focus on the rustling of the leaves, the birds tweeting. When he was a boy, his grandad taught him to really listen to the birds, picking out the different sounds, the layers. If he leaned into it, concentrating, he could tell the robin from the blackbird, the jackdaw from the crow. Now, he listens again – sparrow, woodpigeon – and can almost feel a strong callused hand on his shoulder.
That’s what he can do, he thinks. He picks up a stick, and holding it at his side like a sword, he walks towards home. The thoughts return as a static hum, so he wants to run back, to gather branches and twigs and leaves so he’s hidden from the world, and it’s hidden from him, but he keeps walking, like wading upriver. As he walks, he strains to tease apart the layers pulling threads from the weave, holding each one to the light, studying its colours.
He stops across the road from the flats and drops his stick. He can make out single thoughts now – I’m hungry; She should’ve called; Cup of tea first, then I’ll start. Just a quick cup of tea.
He hears boredom, worry and anger. And then he feels the sharp thing; he pulls it closer, making the other voices fade away. He shivers.
It stands out now, like neon in the dark.
Guided by the word, walking upstairs as if floating, he comes to a bright red door. 3B.
He knocks. The door looks solid but feels flimsy against his fist. There’s a noise inside. People talking, the telly maybe. Cutting through that background noise, that one word. Help.
He knocks again. Footsteps come down the hall and the door opens a little. It’s the woman he sees coming and going to work in an opticians’ uniform.
‘Can I help?’ she says. He can imagine her at work, giving him the same smile, friendly but professional.
‘Sorry. I was looking for someone else.’
She looks at him.
‘Somebody from school. A friend.’
‘Okay,’ she says.
A man pops his head round the door, smiling. ‘Who’s there, Love?’
‘It’s fine,’ she says, closing the door.
But as she does the voice comes back. Screaming, desperate, cold. Help.
Sean looks at the red door, his head filled with the word.
He knocks again.
Author Bio: Craig Aitchison is a teacher and writer from the Scottish Borders. He is a graduate of the Masters course in Creative Writing at Stirling University. His fiction has been published in Northwords Now, Pushing Out The Boat and the Crowvus Press anthology, ‘A Ghost For Christmas.
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